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The ‘distraction’ of priestly celibacy

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 17, 2019

In the five weeks that have passed since Pope-emeritus Benedict published his letter on the roots of the sex-abuse scandal, critics of the former Pontiff have been remarkably successful at repressing his message. Their strategy has been to question the propriety of Benedict’s message—whether he should have spoken out at all—rather than its content.

But if you have read the former Pope’s letter—and if you haven’t, you should—you know that he traced the origin of the scandal to roots in the tumultuous 1960s, when the sexual revolution seized power over Western society, at the same time that the Catholic Church suffered through years of post-conciliar confusion. The net result, Benedict observed, was a marked decline in the fervor of Catholic faith and the practice of Church discipline. And those parallel trends paved the way for the epidemic of clerical abuse—an epidemic that did, demonstrably, peak in the 1970s and 1980s.

An interesting thesis, isn’t it, at the very least? More interesting, certainly, then the tired old claim that sexual abuse is caused by clerical celibacy—a theory that doesn’t explain sexual abuse by married schoolteachers and Hollywood producers.

In August 2004, Msgr. Harry Byrne, the former chancellor of the New York archdiocese, wrote an interesting article in Commonweal about priestly celibacy. “Rather than an enhancement, celibacy has been more of a distraction,” he said.

However, while he encouraged discussion about making celibacy optional for priests, Msgr. Byrne was also perceptive in explaining why the discipline had become a distraction:

Unmarried, the priest ideally can give more of himself and his time to ministry, but it does not always work out that way. Compensations easily insinuate themselves—golf, tennis, bridge, social activities, hobbies—and make disproportionate demands on the time and energy said to derive from celibacy. Without a high-octane spiritual life, other less acceptable activities can come into play: drinking, race tracks, casinos.

“Celibacy,” Msgr. Byrne continued, “has an enormous value to the person and to the church when it is a continuing mandate of the heart—the most total giving of oneself to the Lord.” But if there is a decline in priestly dedication, a relaxation of spiritual discipline, a loss of ascetism—in short, the sort of breakdown that Benedict described—then, yes, celibacy can become a distraction.

But maybe not distraction enough. Msgr. Byrne, now 98 years old and living in retirement, has been indicted on 37 counts of child pornography.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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